Photo: Banner reads “We can’t breathe! Stop environmental racism.” Liberation photo
On April 22 a People’s Earth Day’ rally was held in front of San Francisco City Hall to demand health and environmental justice for residents of Bayview Hunters Point and Treasure Island.
The Hunters Point Shipyard in the Bayview district is a federal Superfund site; one of many polluted locations in the United States requiring a long-term response to clean up hazardous material contaminations. Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai from the Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Project explained to an attentive crowd how clusters of people have been identified with the same toxins in their urine including arsenic, magnesium, vanadium and gadolinium. The statistical likelihood that 16 people would have these same four toxins in their urine without environmental contamination being the cause, she explained, is impossible.
Treasure Island shares many similarities with with the Bayview in terms of the impacts of environmental racism. They are both primarily low-income communities of color who have been and continue to be exposed to toxic chemicals with complete disregard for people’s wellbeing. Treasure Island was built by the government in 1936 and was later used by the U.S. Navy as a central point for their operations in the Bay Area.
As Carol Harvey, an investigative journalist and one of the speakers at the event said “[the U.S. navy] set [Treasure Island] up as an administrative base and radiation schools were set up where thousands of sailors a month learned how to handle nuclear attacks on ships. In the process, the navy dropped all kinds of radiation pieces on the soil.”
Gloria Berry, a U.S. Navy veteran, talked about how her ship carried nuclear weapons. “We came to that shipyard to get repairs, and to get decontaminated. Where did the toxins go that came off our ship? Into the communities,” she said. Berry has been diagnosed with cancer and is taking chemotherapy treatments every night about which she said, “The way I see it, I might have gotten that from the Navy, but I signed up for that. The community did not sign up for this.”
After the naval station closed in 1997, Treasure Island was handed over to Willie Brown, then San Francisco Mayor, who opened it to residential and other uses. The island was then populated by low-income, formerly homeless people and and people in need of supportive housing. It currently has somewhat over 3,000 inhabitants.
Curious about why the mainstream media was not covering this issue, Carol Harvey’s investigations found that then-mayor Brown told media outlets not to cover Treasure Island because he wanted it to be redeveloped. “Hunters Point is a Superfund site and Treasure Island should have been called the Superfund site that it is but they’ve worked to keep it off the Superfund list and keep it off the national priorities list so nobody would know how toxic it is,” she explained. Treasure Island developers like Lennar Corp. and FivePoint Holdings LLC now have massive projects in the works, and they have made sure that no such designations go through.
A community in pain
Sabrina Hall from Greenaction read a letter from a community member:
“…The air we breathe may not have had the virus before, but it has always had something that made us sick, that killed us. Grave levels of toxic particles. Imagine going through a year like the last for decades now. If you were living in Bayview Hunters Point or Treasure Island, you’d always have to wear a pm2.5 mask or n95 mask, or a gas mask for that matter. It has always been a public health emergency for this community, not just right now. These times are not just of the great pandemic, but also of a reckoning of racial injustice that has been plaguing this country for centuries.”
Gwen Woods, the mother of Mario Woods, who was killed by SF Police Department in 2015, was represented at the action by former Black Panther Party chairwoman Elaine Brown. Brown stated Gwen Woods wished she could have attended the action, but that she has to work every day because she didn’t receive any compensation resulting from the killing of her son. Woods grew up in the Bayview and lost both her mother and father to cancer, likely a side effect of exposure to toxic contamination from the shipyard.
In the statement read by Elaine Brown, Gwen Woods wrote, “I must state that I was outraged when I saw the video of Lennar Corporation coming into the Bayview with total disregard for Black folks in our community. I was reminded from this city which has impacted my family on every and all levels of evil that not only is my son’s blood on the hands of this city, my mother’s life as well. So, I feel disgusted with the whole government of San Francisco.
“If no one at the highest-level steps up against this entity named Lennar, you are complicit with this group. Or maybe, your agenda was and is the genocide of the Bayview. Yes, I said genocide, when you deliberately partake in the destruction of a large group of people or community of people it is genocide. Truth is, between the SF Police Department and Lennar, we are at war.”
The greed and brutality of this system is incredibly clear. As long as politicians continue to put the needs of the rich, including the corporate developers like Lennar, before the interests of the people, we must continue to struggle for a better system.